The Salesman: a story.

Out in the street, the horses stood quietly in the chilly morning air, thin wisps of steam suspended over their backs. White blazes, stockings bright in the early light. Sometimes they neighed or snorted in an outbreak of lively frustration as the men harnessed them, buckles chinked. He looked out the window; the Clydesdales were only the width of the pavement away. They kicked at the cobbles with their iron-shod hooves. In the winter when it was dark, tiny sparks flew. Chill, noises drifted in under the open sash, and a waft of the warm wet blanket smell that hung around the horses. Similar to the damp tedious smell filling the back room in the winter when his mother dried clothes in front of the fire.

Today, a May morning and a new year was beginning. Well, this time of year always felt more new than the middle of winter. When he was younger, Malcolm would not have thought of the year chronologically. Then, his fresh perceptions were of how the light brightened, went on brightening, as the gloomy months passed, filling his eyes and the inside of his head and body – the dark decline driven out. A primitive sensation he experienced even now in his late-teen sophistication. The early summer light was new, new every year.

Carters with big bellies put the lustreless black leather collars over the horses’ heads. The silver metal on the collars and straps glinted in the morning light rising ever higher over the high grey tenements. Sometimes a horse would piss; in the morning sun, a golden arc of yellow entwined with shadows splattered on the dark stoned street. He heard the stream hitting the cobbles. Malcolm stood on the cold linoleum, yawning, stretching, engaged in all the activity as the chill crept up his legs – though he had watched this similar scene on many mornings.

Very little light or heat from the sun reached the ground floor tenement flat. Most of the day all year round the cold and damp hung in the air. Only in the hottest part of summer, if it was hot, did they not have to light a fire in the grate. Even in the worst of summers, on the east coast of Scotland, he persuaded himself, there were at least one or two weeks where the sun’s heat passed through the dampness. Still, the house never became warm. Built of inferior sandstone the tenements held moisture like a sponge.

Maybe if Jeff Callaghan, his father, did not drink so much they could live somewhere better. If he were here, then he would know what things were like every day. Malcolm stared hard out the window, for a moment forgetting the scene; remembering, Hope springs eternal, the chinless minister at St James’s intoning at Easter. Ministers! Priests!  Holy Willies!

Things will work out!  He thought of his mother’s simplistic words. He knew them to be words tinged, with real hope, not religious hope. Because she who worked hard spoke them.  The minister’s words are sentimental words, she had said, but they are true.  Without hope, what is there, son?  Less of the gloom and doom, she was forever telling him.  That they communicated their feelings had advantages, although sometimes it could end in acrimonious rowing. In Alistair Smith’s family, silence divided his household as stonewalls divided rooms.

Christmas, Easter, marriages, deaths the only time we are ever in church.

The nickering horses brought him back. He laughed at the way the horse stood so nonchalantly while pissing; no preparatory, awkward movements of cocking legs; a solid standing there, like a living statue and not like men all that shaking afterwards.

The rising sun highlighted more and more of the street. Horses and men stood out as the morning shadows fled away. The carters shouted, laughed, swore loudly, sometimes at the horses if they were stubborn, not doing what they were told. He liked the carters, the horses were animals – they were simply part of life. The carters were men, he thought of them differently.  Women too, women and men, they were more than animals.  Again, it came to him how he thought of them when he was younger.  That they were, true, like everything his eyes could see. Because the horses stood solidly on the ground and the carters shouted and swore so loudly and happily, they had open hearts. One thing he liked about animals they were not ambiguous like many humans. It made no sense; that was how it came out in his young head.

One incident stood out soon after he started school.  He and his friends were playing in the street when he found a pigeon with its wing broken and brought the grey bird to one of the men.  His immature thoughts again convinced, the man would fix the pigeon. The man took the soft warm bird, in his muscled fingers; deftly he broke its neck then threw it in the gutter.  Gazing at the boy, eyes flashing concern through the folds of red flesh that adorned his big grinning face, the driver said it was better, tae pit it oot o’ its misery.  It happened often but this time something fixed this instance, the man, the thick fingers, the fat cruel jolly face, the moment of care in the eyes, with awe and truth in his mind.

The brutality of the moment made a mark in his soul and he looked back and realised that life was like that sometimes, “nasty brutish, short,” a phrase he had learnt in the history class, a phrase that he did not want to believe. He had argued with some in the class, coming to a compromise within himself when he realised, as he grew away from his childish ideas, that it was true. He also realised that some things his young eyes had seen were not true. Doubts had risen about men and the doubts were compounded and brought into focus by a fictional man, Superman in the comics, at the cinema week after week, Superman in the serial which he had booed and hoorayed at; Superman at the Saturday matinee, Superman in his wrinkled suit, made him smile. The wrinkled suit convinced him, a real superman would not have a wrinkled suit.  He could not explain the truth that he had now arrived at but he knew that there were no supermen: in comics perhaps, not in life.

His mother already away to work at her job in the factory; she would return in the late afternoon with the dull, smell of jute on her clothes. The work siren, called her while it was still dark, claimed her life for another day so she and her family could stay together. He had heard her getting up, opening the door and saying, ‘Bye, Malcolm. See you when I get home.’ Ever that contented stoicism in her voice.

He would organize his brother to get off to school and himself to the Corporation’s Commercial College.  Bob his brother was already up, he could hear him running about in the other room which looked out on to a grass square, long, straight, grey, cracked washing poles as high as the three storey building, lean to sheds, the bins and the concrete air raid shelters, which had never been used.  Even in winter the long spears of grass seemed to remain the same length.  These repeated observations, which passed through his mind he placed in a mental box labelled, The Fatuous Mysteries of Life.

‘Hey, I’m going out to the lav,’ his brother Bob shouted from the front room.

Malcolm thoughts now concerned his father a soldier in Africa, fighting the Mau Mau. Bob said  his Dad would be using the machete he brought home while he was on leave before going to Africa. Jeff told his young son the big knife was called a machete. It was for chopping your way through the thick jungle vegetation. And killing people his brother had said. His father said nothing.

In his dictionary, the entry stated that it originally meant club. War! Films, books, staged war, the only place Malcolm knew of war. Maybe he drinks to forget.

He dressed went next door and lifted the warm sheets from the floor and folded them up with his brother’s pyjamas, the blue striped ones he had worn at Bob’s age. He then turned up the settee bed where his brother slept. When his father came home on leave, his brother slept in the front room with him. Pulling the table into the space where the bed had been, he turned to the stove and began making porridge for his brother. While he stood at the gas stove stirring the oats, his brother came back with the white enamel chamber pot, on his head. Every time he took the pot out to empty, he came back with it on his head. His mother would say, “One of these days that’ll get stuck on your head you daft thing.” They would laugh, especially Bob, at the picture of himself with the pot on his head.

‘I hope you rinsed that,’ Malcolm said, stirring the pot, the porridge’s milky aroma rose from the bubbling pot.

‘Of course I did. Just like you showed me. In the next flush water.’

‘Maybe one day you’ll forget. There’ll be a dribble of wee running down your neck.’

‘Ugh!’

‘Eat your porridge. And you’ll be a tough enough Scotsman to take anything like that.’

‘Like Dad?’

‘Yes, like Dad,’ Malcolm said softly.

‘Malcolm! Do you think that man selling the books will come back soon?’

‘Well, Kate gave him 10/- deposit, after you went on about those encyclopaedias.’

‘They looked so good. Didn’t they Malcolm. An’ they’ll help us to speak proper and know all about the British Empire. They’re always telling us that in school.’

‘They definitely seem to have some interesting articles in them. You already speak proper. At least you know how to. Mum always taught us, if we wanted, “to make something of ourselves we shouldn’t speak in the common dialect.” ‘Their mother’s admonition spoken in her quaint Scots accent. ‘By the way squirt, you shouldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction, especially not a contracted conjunction.’

What they were both now looking back on was the evening a man selling Encyclopaedias came to the door. A man, engulfed in a navy coloured, woollen overcoat that almost touched the flagstones in the passage, wearing a black homburg that appeared to be consuming his head: Malcolm’s lasting image.

He knew his brother would be excited about the pictures of, “sportsmen, animals, airplanes, Red Indians and all sorts of great stuff.” Bob’s breathless words, which spilled out when the man showed them a mock-up of the books. A moment of disappointment flashed in his brother’s eyes as he watched the man putting the sample back in his scuffed, brown attaché case. Bob was never down. It annoyed Malcolm his brother could be constantly cheerful. He knew his brother’s liveliness delighted his mother. He could be moody, worrying about matters for too long.

‘Malcolm, why do you call mum Kate?’ His brother’s voice broke into his thoughts.

‘I’ve told you before, it is her name and she likes me calling her Kate,’

‘But you do love her don’t you?’

‘Of course I do.’

His brother, placated, carried on eating his breakfast. Kids seem to be easily satisfied.

In the evening, they were sitting before the range, the coal glowed. A smell of fish suppers lingered in the air, mixed with the heat gave the room a warm intimacy. A cream coloured Murphy’s radio, on a high plant stand, hummed and crackled. The Black Museum, on Radio Luxembourg would be broadcast later. Kate Callaghan sat enjoying her first cigarette since coming home from work, tidying the house, looking at Bob’s homework and asking Malcolm how his day at College had been. His brother had a pile of DC comics on his lap; The Dandy and The Beano were for kids said Bob. Malcolm, who sat at the table, the tea things cleared, should be looking at the history book from the library before him, studied his mother. Contented stoicism, a phrase he thought up to describe her method for getting through life.

On the news the announcer said, Mau Mau rebels in Kenya have burned down Tree Tops. None of them said anything. Bob and Malcolm looked at Kate who simply smiled reassuringly and stared straight ahead. The newsreader went on to explain that Tree Tops was the hotel where our present Queen Elizabeth had been staying on her honeymoon with the Duke of Edinburgh in 1952 when she heard that she was to be queen.

Right now, his gran and granddad would be nodding to one another in appreciation of this fire. His mother’s family were Communists and against the Monarchy.

‘Gran’ll be cheering,’ said Bob, who did not understand why his grandparents hated the Queen, and that, ‘lang skinny Greek she married.’ The hatred Malcolm found confusing; beneath the crowned heads were flesh that would bleed if you shot them. Bleed to death in the case of the Romanovs.

‘Your granddad, will be saying how he wished those two were in the fire at the time,’ pronounced Kate.

‘What about you mum, do you wish that,’ asked Malcolm?

Bob noticed he did not call her Kate, this time.

Before she could answer, there was knocking at the door.

‘It’s the books,’ shouted Bob.

The three of them went to the door. Bob, who arrived first, opened the door. His mother switched on the lobby light.

The same tall smooth man in his long navy blue, heavy overcoat, black homburg hat, attaché case, stood with head bent looking at them. Light from the house slanted over his form. Above him to the right hissed the gas lamp that lit the entrance to the tenement. Definitely, thought Malcolm a Dickensian image.

‘Good evening Mrs Callaghan how are you this nice May evening?’ His English accent was southern, Malcolm remembered – Essex he had thought. Jeff his father was from Essex. There was no sight of any books.

‘Have you brought the books?’  Bob asked keeping his hair on, just.

‘Now young man, I’m not as young as I used to be and all those books would be too much for me. Howwevver,’ he went on, the corners of his mouth turned up, an unreal smile stayed for a second, ‘I’ve brought you a sample, which you can keep free of charge,’ he said tapping the worn case. The words slithered and coiled from his mouth like those adders he had seen in the glass case in Jackie’s Pet Shop.  He kept looking over their shoulders as if he expected to be invited in or he was wondering where the man was. This time Malcolm knew his mother would not allow him in.

‘If you haven’t got the books, what do you want?’ said his mother, aggressively. Malcolm and Bob looked at her.

‘You know dear, the books will arrive by carrier when they do come, which should be quite soon. So I’ve come to accept a further instalment to our agreement.’

‘Not another penny until we see the first book.’

‘Why, yes of course madam, but our agree. . .’

Kate shut the door. Bob looked up at her,

‘Ach Ma! You didnae even tak’ the sample.’

‘I don’t think he had a sample lad,’ his mother said. ‘And it is: But mother, you did not even take the sample. Not that noise you made.’

‘Yes mum.’

Malcolm wondered how her work mates viewed his mother, in the mill or the factory as she called it. Same as the way they saw him, speaking his posh, he speculated. Predictably by sniggering.  And she when taunted would ignore the derision.

Back in the front room, none of them mentioned the salesman. Malcolm took coal out of the bunker, which was under the window, and ran the tap in the sink next to the store, to keep the dust down.  Late screeches from the constant gang of seagulls told him someone had put food debris in the bin and forgotten to replace the lid.

As he filled the scuttle, he looked out at the air-raid shelter, which blocked the light. His mother said every so often, all they did was block the sun. It was one of those Churchillian things; building the shelters caused people to concentrate on the war effort.  Like taking down the iron railings around schools and other buildings; to make people believe their efforts make a difference.

‘Old Winnie, right bluidy Tory con-man,’ was how his granddad put it.

Now he was older he realised tangible things, existent, material objects had question marks over them. Perhaps the visible was not always true as he in innocence once believed it to be. Churchill was another of his grandparent’s pet hates. Malcolm remained unsure and had his own thoughts on the subject as he did concerning Royalty. One of his uncles, every time there were family arguments on the class system, would say that they were all human beings, and a man couldn’t help into which class he was born, just as he couldn’t help where he was born or what sex he was. This naturally caused more argument. And Malcolm realised that not all working families were Reds, as Bob would in his time.

The Black Museum on Radio Luxembourg would be on soon. Malcolm made toast for them. Over the glowing coals sinking in the grate he held the bread on a fork, his hand wrapped in a sock to protect it from the heat. Darkness pressed in at the window. The fire and a small table lamp the only light. Shadows still against the walls.

Big Ben chimes, from the pale plastic radio: The Black Museum, the repository of death . . . and the voice of Orson Welles smouldered through another grisly tale of murder. Bob sitting in his pyjamas fell asleep. Malcolm and his mother lifted him and put him in her bed in the alcove, sliding him gently to the wall side so Kate could slip in later. Tonight Malcolm would fold down the bed settee and they would all sleep in the same room, now warm and filled with the promises of sleep.

That night in bed, Malcolm lay wondering about the future. Bob and his mother were going to Germany soon. Jeff his dad had written from Africa saying to say he would be posted to Germany after their regiments stint in Kenya was over. A place called Minden. Malcolm would stay with his grandparents to continue at Trade and Commercial College.

The salesman never returned. His mother never allowed another one into the house. His father threatened to sue somebody when he came home.

Bob carried on as if nothing had ever happened. He went to the library, looked up Minden and discovered, ‘the River Weser ran through the town and “it’s near Hamelin, where the Pied Piper drowned millions of rats and then stole all the children cause the cheating politicians wouldn’t pay him his golden ducats. . ” As his brother rattled all this off at top speed Malcolm knew he would be unbearable until he and his father were on the actual spot where the sleek rats went into the river.

alan gregor

There is a slightly different version on The Writer’s Drawer.

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